Task force drops proposed amusement tax, submits new plan targeting business tax breaks

Posted Dec. 02, 2013, at 7:32 p.m.
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland.
Maine Senate Democrats
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The panel charged with reducing or eliminating $40 million in tax breaks to prevent further cuts to revenue sharing put forward a plan Monday that may fall short of meeting that goal.

Gone from the plan are proposals floated last week to tax entertainment, recreation and personal care services, which were deemed too politically charged to ever win approval in the Legislature.

On the table are cuts to tax expenditure programs, mostly ones that provide tax breaks to businesses, though others that benefit graduates from Maine colleges and historic restoration are also on the list.

But several members of the Tax Expenditure Review Task Force lamented a lack of good information about how much money could be saved in each program as they stumbled toward the $40 million mark, and offered different assessments of whether they’d met the goal at all.

“I think we’re pretty close. We’re not far off,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who co-chairs the task force with Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor. “It’s really tough because until it’s actually written as a bill, and has gone through the process and has a fiscal note, there are no firm numbers.”

Others were less confident. Garrett Martin, executive director of the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy, vocally supported expanding the sales tax to some services, which he said would be necessary to avoid property tax hikes that would result from cuts to revenue sharing.

“If we talk about the list, the one discussed this morning, then no, there isn’t $40 million there,” he said. “Even if you assume you completely eliminate certain programs on the list, you’re going to have a hard time coming up with $40 million.”

In question is the group’s charge: The budget provision that created the task force called for a report on where to find $40 million in savings by tackling tax breaks. What the group has come up with is a list of possible targets, which they’ll present as a “draft” report to the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee on Dec. 12.

Haskell said the difference of opinion in whether the group met its goal comes down to different expectations between lawmakers and others on the panel, many of whom are accountants, economists or others from the business sector.

“It is a frustration for people who come from the outside, who are used to being able to turn to an accountant and say, ‘Bring me a number and I’ll look at it tomorrow and see whether it’s $1 million or $3 million,’” she said. “Here, at this stage of the process, we don’t have that information.”

While there may have been some confusion about the total value of the task force’s proposal, the group did take a first step in what will inevitably be a long legislative process by assembling a menu of choices for the Appropriations Committee.

The menu includes cuts worth up to $3 million to the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement for retailers who participate in the program; changes to an inventory tax that hits oil companies, worth up to $10 million; elimination of the Pine Tree Development Zone income tax credit, worth up to $3.3 million; and the elimination of several research and development tax credits, worth up to nearly $6 million.

Cuts were also proposed to the historic rehabilitation income tax credit; the Opportunity Maine program, which provides credit for graduates paying back student debt accumulated at Maine schools; and the employment tax increment finance program, which provides tax breaks for companies based on how many workers they hire.

Another proposal would take approximately $4 million out of the Tax Relief Fund, which is meant to accumulate budget surplus until there’s enough squirreled away to cut the income tax rate. That item was popular with most, but not all, of the committee.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the plan was likely dead on arrival with his Republican colleagues.

“There are those who believe that somehow getting our income tax rate lower is really important for our competitiveness with other states,” he said. “Wiping out this fund would not be a victory in that effort, from the perspective of many of us.”

While new taxes on services such as ski lift tickets, golf course fees, limo rides and tanning bed time did not receive the support of lawmakers on the task force, those proposals will be given to the Appropriations Committee in a second report, indicating the interest by several economists and accountants on the panel.

That tax base expansion alone is worth nearly $50 million, according to preliminary estimates from the Office of Fiscal and Program Review. But it came under heavy attack from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who said now is the wrong time to create any new taxes.

The task force’s other mandate was to devise a plan for ongoing assessment of the state’s tax expenditures, which some estimates value at as much as $6 billion. Along with Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, a plan is in the works that would see each program evaluated at least every eight years. The evaluation would gauge whether the program was successful in achieving its stated purpose.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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